On June 4 a federal appeals court concluded that the FCC’s eagerness to charge exorbitant fines for accidental obscenities broadcast over the air was “arbitrary and capricious” and “devoid of any evidence that suggests a fleeting expletive is harmful, let alone establishes that this harm is serious enough to warrant government regulation.” It was a rare and smashing victory for freedom of expression. Right-wing Republican FCC chair Kevin Martin said he was considering appealing all the way to the Supreme Court.
In the good old days, before one of Janet Jackson’s breasts made its way onto network TV during the 2004 Super Bowl, the FCC was leveling obscenity fines of less than half a million in 2003 and only $48,000 in 2000. But the fines for Jackson’s on-camera areola alone came to $550,000–giving Jackson’s exposed chest a net worth of more than a million dollars (plus the still-undisclosed value of her nipples, which had remained concealed). That year FCC fines for dirty words and exposed butt cheeks skyrocketed to nearly $8 million. Then-FCC chair Michael “Son of Colin” Powell explained that this was prompted by a “dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes,” citing an exponential increase in citizen complaints.
This spring’s case related in part to Bono’s extemporaneous exclamation “fucking brilliant!” on NBC during the 2003 Golden Globes. In its decision the court referred to the fact that President Bush and Vice President Cheney had, in recent times, been heard using “variants of these expletives in a manner that no reasonable person would believe referenced ‘sexual or excretory organs or activities.'” (Next thing you know, it’ll be legal to shoot your friends in the face.)
Yes, fellow Americans, thanks in part to the potty-mouths of Bush and Cheney, we’ve won the right to curse, accidentally, on the public airwaves. And a good thing, too, because aside from all the sensible reasons this ought to be so, it turns out that virtually all of the opposition to so-called indecency on the public airwaves is as imaginary as the PBS animated bunny rabbit Buster, who scandalously visited a lesbian couple, upsetting Education Secretary Margaret Spellings two years ago.
An enterprising reporter for MediaWeek noted that according to FCC records, 99.8 percent of the complaints in 2003 were filed by L. Brent Bozell’s Parents Television Council. Harnessing a technology it calls an entertainment tracking system, which logs “every incident of sexual content, violence, profanity, disrespect for authority and other negative content,” including “even those minor swears,” the PTC e-mails its members “offensive” video clips together with ready-made outraged letters to the FCC. Presto, an anti-“indecency” campaign.
But before liberals break out the Cristal, it might be a good time to re-examine our reflexive mocking of the prudery of those who object to the content they find streaming into their homes. You don’t need to be a Christocrat to dislike the kinds of cultural messages communicated to children, teens and the rest of us through American entertainment culture. For instance, when Justin Timberlake ripped off Jackson’s top, liberals mocked conservative hysteria over a single partially exposed breast. I did too. Far more objectionable was that Timberlake ripped off Jackson’s clothing in what social critic Robert Wright described as “an act of stylized male sexual aggression, an apparent preamble to rape.” This ought to offend all of us, particularly liberals, particularly parents.
Much of talk-radio is also a free-fire zone for verbal violence against women. Shock jocks Opie and Anthony recently featured a guest joking about raping and punching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the face and other such acts on Laura Bush. Liberals are no strangers to condemnation of things that all sensible people reject; would it be so difficult to pay more attention to the outrages against what used to be called “common decency” by those who encourage attacks on our wives, daughters, sisters and mothers? Similarly, the disrespect for women, for our collective humanity, in so much “gangsta rap” shouldn’t be censored but should be condemned by those of us who think of our wives, daughters, sisters and mothers as something other than “ho’s” and “bitches.” Hollywood producers and rap artists who celebrate violence against women should be shunned and condemned by liberals every bit as much as right-wing talk-radio is reviled for its racism, sexism and homophobia.
And what about the role of greedy corporations in glorifying antisocial behavior in teens and other impressionable people? Why, for instance, do we not protest when retailers plaster the subways with posters for the teen clothing line State Property Wear, which distinguishes itself with hidden pockets and gun holsters, as if to teach teens to admire jailed drug-dealing thugs and murderers? Why do we sit quietly by as the fashion industry fosters anorexia in young girls, sexualizes preteens and promotes the look of spaced-out junkies? Where is the liberal moral voice, I ask you, when it might be most useful?
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I mourn the passing of my friend, and valued contributor to this magazine, Richard Rorty, who died June 8 at 75 of cancer. Like his role model John Dewey, whose pragmatist precepts he did so much to revive here and in Europe, Rorty was not only America’s most influential philosopher but also a public intellectual, dedicated to the highest ideals of America’s founding and its unfulfilled potential. His 1998 book Achieving Our Country forced many on the left–particularly in the academy–to reconsider what it meant to participate meaningfully as intellectuals in the life of the country. His faith in democracy, in the possibility of national self-improvement and in the vital role to be played in that drama by the reformist left will remain an inspiration to those of us who labor in the vineyards he so conscientiously tended.